As the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina nears, TCNJ students continue to make the 22-hour road trip to the Big Easy to help residents there rebuild. They have no plans of stopping until the recovery is complete.
Forsaking spring breaks and senior weeks during the past decade, more than 1,000 TCNJ students have restored or rebuilt more than 100 homes in the low-lying, low-income areas hardest hit by Katrina, says Brittany Aydelotte, a coordinator who organized many of the trips for TCNJ’s Bonner Institute for Civic and Community Engagement. The students have also refurbished city parks and playgrounds, served at nonprofits, and helped rehabilitate wetlands to lessen the impact of future hurricanes on the Gulf Coast area.
A 2009 graduate of the college, Aydelotte volunteered in New Orleans twice as a student and has returned seven times since as a staff member. “Being there every year, I’ve been able to see the difference, the improvement,” she says. With each trip, she also sees eagerness spark in a new group of students, much as it did for her that first time.
“Their initial response is excitement about the city and the culture,” says Aydelotte. “Then we tour the city, and as they see how much work remains to be done, their excitement turns to sadness, frustration, and anger. But as they begin to build, their hope returns as they hear homeowners’ stories and see how thankful they are.”
One of those homeowners, 33-year-old Juanita Hamilton, lived with relatives and in a FEMA trailer when her house was destroyed during Katrina. Students helped her rebuild in 2008. “To see them take time from their lives to help me get back into my house had a huge emotional impact. It showed who really cared,” says Hamilton.
“Hearing those stories provides meaning for our labor,” says Dominick “D.J.” Josso-Martin, a 2015 graduate who volunteered in New Orleans each of the last four years. “My time there taught me so many lessons, but more than anything it showed me the importance of community.”
Year after year, TCNJ students have returned to help the displaced get back into their homes. That won’t change, says Aydelotte.
“The passion to serve has been passed down from student group to student group,” she says. “This is a campuswide commitment.”
—Susan Cousins Breen
TCNJ service in post-Katrina New Orleans
Trips to New Orleans during the last decade
Katrina’s impact on New Orleans
Housing units damaged
Source: The Data Center (datacenterresearch.org)